Surfing Madonna charity threatens to remove, relocate popular mosaic

The “Surfing Madonna” mosaic displayed on Encinitas Boulevard, near the Coast Highway intersection, in Encinitas.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A billing dispute between the city of Encinitas and a local nonprofit has prompted a threat to remove the popular Surfing Madonna mosaic from the side of a neighborhood restaurant and move it to another city where, according to charity officials, it would be more appreciated.

Robert Nichols, chairman of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, said a standoff between his charity and Encinitas began in October, when the city demanded more than $8,000 in lifeguard fees just two days before the 2019 Surfing Madonna Beach Run.

The charity’s annual fundraiser attracts thousands of runners to the Encinitas coastline each fall.

The conflict has not affected the nonprofit’s other major fundraiser, the Encinitas Half Marathon & 5K, which remains on schedule for March 29.

Even though Encinitas city officials acknowledged a “clerical error” and reduced the lifeguard fees to $3,791, Nichols said the artwork still may be taken away because the fight over the lifeguard charges resulted in the charity’s permits for future events being canceled.

“We are heartbroken to say that IF these events are no longer approved, the Surfing Madonna Mosaic will be taken down, per the artists’ request,” Nichols wrote in a Facebook post late last month.

“If the city is cutting our fund-raising lifeline and ultimately ending all of the programs/ grants/ surf camps, then perhaps Surfing Madonna can find another community where the city representatives appreciate and support all of the positive impact this iconic and globally recognized art piece provides,” he added.

The social media post ended with a call for supporters of the nonprofit to contact Encinitas officials and “let them know what the Surfing Madonna means to you.” The city subsequently received dozens of emails from people worried the beach runs may no longer happen.

City officials issued a statement downplaying the disagreement and pointing to an upcoming council vote that would reinstate the November beach run.

“Because all major special events (2,000 people or more) in Encinitas are reviewed in March of the prior year, this request for reinstatement is considered ‘off-cycle’ and will be taken to City Council for consideration on Feb. 12,” said city spokesman Paul Brencick by email. “Congruent to all of this, the permitting process for special events is being updated and amended.”

According to emails obtained under the California Public Records Act, it was Nichols who called off the future events — not city officials.

“The city of Encinitas did not cancel any Surfing Madonna events,” parks and recreation Director Jennifer Campbell wrote in response to a multitude of emails the city received in the wake of the Facebook posting.

“Mr. Bob Nichols, representing Surfing Madonna, asked that the city remove the November 2020 Surfing Madonna Beach Run from the Encinitas calendar and he stated that the 2020 Encinitas Half Marathon would be their last in Encinitas as well,” she wrote. “Since then, Surfing Madonna has requested their events be placed back on the Encinitas calendar and the request will need to go through the appropriate city process.”

Charity officials say the dispute already has cost the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project tens of thousands of dollars by curtailing their ability to promote the November beach run over the past several months.

“Because we haven’t been able to open up registration for 2020 Surfing Madonna Run, which is tentatively set for Nov. 1, 2020, we have lost about $60,000 in registration fees,” Megan McCarthy, the charity’s board secretary and Nichols’ wife, wrote in an email.

The Surfing Madonna is a colorful 10-foot mosaic featuring a Madonna riding a surfboard alongside the message “Save the Ocean.”

It appeared under an Encinitas bridge in 2011 without explanation or permission.

The piece of art created an instant stir not only because of its originality and message, but because government officials said it was illegally installed and had to be moved. It eventually found a home near the corner of Encinitas Boulevard and South Coast Highway.

Mark Patterson of Encinitas later came forward as the guerrilla artist responsible for creating the mosaic. He subsequently joined the board of directors of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, which was established to support the popular artwork and the environment at large.

Among other activities, the charity sponsors surf camps throughout the year. It also donates grant money to community groups and city projects that support the environmental-preservation message.

The charity was the subject of a report in The San Diego Union-Tribune last month showing that Nichols and his wife collected salary increases in 2018 that, combined, amounted to nearly one-third of the organization’s revenue at the same time the grant awards declined.

Nichols said neither he nor his wife are involved in the salary-setting process. He also said leaders of other community groups and event producers earn far more than the $220,000 total that Surfing Madonna Oceans Project paid them in 2018.

-- Jeff McDonald is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune